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Imagine it: you’re a 39-year-old mom to two young boys. You’re healthy and health-conscious—a marathon-runner and a non-smoker—and you’ve just been diagnosed with lung cancer. Jessica Steinberg could hardly believe that it was happening to her.

“My first thought when I heard my diagnosis was honestly ‘ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?’ I couldn’t imagine I had cancer, let alone lung cancer. I had no known risk factors. I never smoked or grew up with anyone who did, there was no radon in my home, I had no exposure to chemicals. I was training for my third marathon. How was it even possible?”

Recently divorced, Jessica was facing the monumental challenge of taking care of two kids on her own while battling ALK-positive non-small cell lung cancer—an aggressive and often terminal disease. No one would have blamed her if she’d curled up into a ball of denial and handed her fate over to her doctors… but she didn’t do that. Instead, Steinberg stepped up to advocate for herself and to take control of her own healthcare.

“I learned that there are specific biomarkers that drive lung cancer,” Steinberg says, sharing one of the most important things she discovered over the course of her fight to beat the disease. “Finding out my biomarker changed everything. I have an ALK-positive mutation, which can be targeted with treatment specifically designed for it.”

A year into her cancer diagnosis, with her medical care mapped out, what Jessica continued to need was social support. The difficult treatment was made easier by the friends and family who stepped up. “I truly learned that no one fights alone. My friends started ‘Jessica’s Army’ and recruited others. I never was without rides to treatment, visitors and freezer meals. A group that helps single mothers with cancer paid my utility bills and cleaned my house,” she recalls. “I don’t need that level of support from anyone now, but it is a comfort knowing they’re still there.”

When it came to her kids, Jessica was determined to turn cancer into an opportunity to teach them about the right way to deal with adversity. “I didn’t want to show them that you collapse, you retreat, you give up. I wanted them to know that you stand up and face it. This was my chance to teach my boys what dedication, perseverance and hope looks like. I wanted to show them that it is not what happens to you, it’s what you do with it. I made one family rule—we had to find some joy and humour in everyday [like] going to the drive-through in our pajamas to get milkshakes.”

What being diagnosed with lung cancer in your 30s is really like
Jessica Steinberg

It’s been five years since Jessica was diagnosed and her journey has shown her some devastating lows—but you might be surprised to hear that they’ve been matched by some of the best moments of her life. “A diagnosis has a way of illuminating what really matters to you,” she explains. “My little family of three took some epic vacations. I developed deeper and more meaningful connections with my family and friends. My boys got to experience the power of community. Trying to live each day with hope, finding joy and humour in the ordinary, being a mom, a sister, a daughter, a friend—these are the moments that I focus on.”

Aside from a focus on the positive, the biomarker testing that she had done remains her best piece of advice for anyone diagnosed with cancer. “I would say that being an equal and active voice in your treatment decisions is key,” she adds.

Now in her 40s, Jessica has taken on the role of patient advocate and public speaker. She says that living with cancer has changed her profoundly by forcing her to let go of the superficial in favour of focussing on who she is on the inside. “I like myself better for who I am now!” she says. “In some ways, getting lung cancer gave me a life purpose: a call to put a new face to lung cancer, and to be bold by promoting awareness, advocacy and empowerment—a call to share my story with others in the hope that they can find something that helps or inspires them.”